Notes from Deep Church conversation series: No. 3: Living with Ambiguity - facing up to difficulties in scripture and Christian doctrine


The third in the Deep Church lecture/conversation series led by Professor Andrew Walker was another great evening. Andrew has kindly reviewed these notes and made suggestions to better reflect the points he was trying to convey in his lecture. I am very grateful to Andrew for his comments but as ever any errors in the notes are mine.

Conversations in this series:

1. The Spirit is Real but he is a person not a force: lessons from Pentecostal, Charismatic and Orthodox traditions. (Link to my notes). 2. Discovering the missing half of Christendom and stumbling across the Fathers of the early church. 3.Living with Ambiguity: facing up to difficulties in scripture and Christian doctrine. 4. On being a theological teacher: notes from the frontline. 5. The ecumenical vision of C S Lewis: moving towards a generous orthodoxy. 6. From certainty to hope: why I know less now than I did when I was 18.

Tales of a life lived with doubt Andrew said that he wanted to separate ambiguity as something that often caused interesting and creative theology from doubts per se. He showed us a 6th century icon of Christ [pictured, click on the image for a larger view] which was weird because the face gazing out at us was normal on one side and distorted on the other. Andrew said his favourite definition of theology was ‘faith thinking’ and that what we had before us were the efforts of early iconographers trying to catch the biblical paradox that Jesus was both God and Man. It did not work in this case because they conveyed depravity or wildness rather than the good humanity of Jesus but it was successful as showing us an example of faith thinking...

Andrew shared that he has lived with doubts not only in the sense of coping with ambiguity as being part of the nature of things - even when he was a Pentecostal he had doubts which he would have liked to have asked Qs about. Andrew shared two bible stories that he found out as a boy that still bother him today:

Two biblical curses:

1) The Story of Baldy Elisha: Andrew read this story from 2 Kings2 .23-25 At the time he couldn’t express the difficulty he had with the image of God that this reflected, Complaining wasn’t an option as his tradition read the scriptures as flat in the sense that all the bible was God’s revelation and could not be questioned in any part.

2) Jesus’s curse of the fig tree: with this one he did ask his Sunday school teacher why Jesus cursed an innocent tree because it seemed to him cruel and unfair of Jesus if it really happened. Was it a parable he wanted ot know? To which his Sunday school teacher replied that the story may well be a parable.

It was not an answer that convinced Andrew especially as he got older because there is no indication from the text that this is not reportage. Later on in life it was something he came to terms with, and like many things would have to wait for eternity before in the words of a song from his Pentecostal days ‘we’ll understand it all by and by’. In his mature understanding he came to accept that faith in this world was not without loose ends and it was also a lesson to him when he started going back to church again that there are some things in the bible that are difficult to accept and difficult to square with a God of Love. Andrew now takes the view that rather than try and reassure everyone that everything is fine – and it is our faith that is deficient which we know is true anyway - it is more honest for people in leadership to share their problems and doubts with people as well as their certainties and epiphanies.

Creation difficulties and scripture One of the difficulties with a loose end approach Andrew discovered in the early 60s at bible college and then again in the 70s when he returned to Christianity was that it did not cut much ice with those who believed in the theory of the inerrancy of scripture – the idea that we have to accept the whole bible unquestioningly as accurate with no other alternatives because, the argument went, if we start questioning anything in the bible then we are not trusting what God is saying. Take out one loose stone and the whole edifice will come crashing down.

Andrew found in the 60s that the creation accounts of Genesis 1 & 2 not to be very satisfying, indeed as a boy he did not know anything about science: there was no concept of theistic evolution so as a boy it was evolution (science = bad) Creator God (bible = good)

Later in the decade Andrew was shocked but helped by the fact that C.S Lewis of all people seemed to have no problem with evolution and the bible. This was for 3 reasons:

i. Lewis was not a trained theologian but a literary critic who looked at the bible from the point of view of a an expert in literary genres. For him it was obvious that Genesis was mythological language;

ii. Lewis knew something about science from his scientific friends and while he had rather a Romantic view which he got from Goethe – for Lewis was no materialist – he did not doubt the legitimacy of the scientific world-view; and

iii. Lewis did not seem to have a problem with evolution from animals as the following quotes make clear:

“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulating, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say "I" and "me," which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. This new consciousness ruled and illuminated the whole organism. . .

I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronized. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow-spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.

We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods..”

Lewis did not believe, then, that Genesis 1 & 2 were a scientific account of the origins of the world but myth Lewis also has a different awareness of the concept of myth, not as made up stories or legends but as spiritual reality illuminating the imagination that is a refraction of divine light that penetrates but also transcends history. Genesis 1 & 2 therefore are myths of pre-history. Mythological language is appropriate as that is the only sort of language we have , besides science, for this sort of account of human origins. Indeed when Lewis read the bible he saw all sorts of different literature forms, to him the gospels looked like history whereas the book of Job looked like fiction but Lewis assumes that God wanted us to have divinely inspired fiction in the bible – as we know from parables fiction can tell us truth – as well as straight reportage.

Fundamentalism One response to the loose ends in the bible which people are afraid that if not accounted for would bring the bible crashing down was the rise of Fundamentalism as an intellectual evangelical movement in the early 20th century. In part deriving its name from a series of popular books called ‘The fundamentals.’ published before and during the Great War (WW1 1914-18). Conservative Evangelicals felt that theories of evolution were undermining people’s faith, creating doubt and perceived the bible to be under attack and therefore needed to be defended.

Unfortunately the defence it mounted was problematic as it was part of the philosophical move begun in the 19th century to provide philosophical foundations (Foundationalism) for all authentic knowledge This epistemology (to use the jargon) coupled with an adherence to Scottish Common Sense philosophy of Reid "All knowledge and all science must be built upon principles that are self-evident; and of such principles every man who has common sense is a competent judge" led the founders of inerrancy (the theologians of Princeton such as B B Warfield) to find a foundation for the bible that would defeat Liberalism on its own ground. By playing the philosophical game unwittingly they were, in Andrew’s opinion, applying a modernist approach to defeat modernism

The new foundation they wheeled out for the bible was the doctrine of inerrancy. There were strong (detailed) and weak(not in every detail) versions of it. The detailed version meant that each word in the bible was inspired by God who can be trusted and as He is trustworthy and loyal to his own word therefore it follows that each word is accurate and in its detailed form the doctrine of inerrancy meant that the bible could not be inaccurate in any detail of history, science etc as well as theological and doctrinal content.

There are some difficulties with this theory, not least that the bible does not have a theory of its own inerrancy built in. It was not a concept that The Church Fathers or the Reformers recognised either who instead talked about the infallibility of scripture i.e. the scriptures would not lead you astray but lead you to Christ – or were infallible in the stricter Reformation sense that they contained God’s revelation of His Person and purposes for humankind and were the bedrock of truth on which knowledge of our salvation and redemption depended

Harmonisation However the difficulty with the theory of inerrancy was these loose ends are left hanging around all over the place in the bible and so it needed some method to be found that would tie the loose ends together and the solution that was arrived at was harmonisation. Some of the harmonising is more plausible than others, but if we cannot live with loose ends then it is an approach that many find satisfactory. Andrew made it clear he was not one of them. He gave us some examples of harmonisation:

Did Judas die by hanging (Mathew) or by falling down in a field (Acts) Which account is correct? The harmonising solution is that Judas hung himself but the rope broke and he fell to the ground and died.

Did Jesus preach his first sermon on a mountain or a plain? The harmonising solution is that the word is not plain (as translated by KJV) but a level place so Jesus went up the mountain and then came down to find a level place.

Here is one to stretch your minds from the 1970s book ‘Battle for the bible’ - Peter denied Jesus after the cock crowed but how many times? once or two times? Your first response might be, said Andrew, does it matter? Well if it does then the harmonising solution proposed is that the cock crows six times and Peter denies Jesus six times with the cock crowing after the 3rd and 6th denials (see here for this and other harmonisations suggestions on this issue).

In all three examples harmonisation relies on material (ranging from plausible to implausible) outside of the scriptural account to back up scripture.

Fundamentalism deserves praise as well as criticism, according to Andrew and his favoured definition that Colin Gunton of King’s College liked to use in Liberal circles is that ‘a fundamentalist is a person who believes more than we do.’ The thinkers behind fundamentalism were brilliant theologians but, Andrew suggests, made an error in developing a theory that is very hard to maintain. Do we need inerrancy? Well that depends on the answers we might give to these questions:

i. a question of personality: Can we live with loose ends? and

ii. doctrinal: does our faith in Jesus mean that we need a faith in an inerrant bible?

In many ways inerrancy can be seen as a mistake in terms of aligning the doctrine more with modern philosophy than Christian religion in order to make the bible stand up against evolutionary science and the higher criticism of biblical scholarship. By adopting the tools of foundationalism they played into the hands of those it was set up to defend against, for now it could be said that we believe the truths of the bible because it rests secure on a new and surer epistemology.

Two thousand years of living with loose ends It might be said that the bible does not need a man made defence, that Jesus is both Lord of this world and his word. In the same way that Jesus was incarnate, both fully man and God, the Word (logos) of God embodies both man and God. The bible itself then is divinely inspired but also human in its construction but because the humans involved in writing the many parts of the bible are fallen you would expect some errors or loosed ends to be found. It’s not the language of Karl Barth but the meaning is the same, he thought that the bible was like an icon of Christ, not the revelation of God itself but a witness to that revelation.

According to Andrew, C S Lewis thought it was silly to try and tie up the loose ends of the bible. He felt instead that if there were no loose ends the bible would feel like it was fixed or a fake rather than like real life, messy, but seeing the spirit of Christ shining through.

For Lewis, and Andrew said this would be a more catholic approach, the bible is the book of the people in community with God and should be treated as the sacred text of the people of God. Lewis in his approach to mere Christianity is intrigued that all the major traditions of Chritstianity cherish the bible and hold to the central doctrines of salvation.

A take on the Reformation which Andrew says is a caricature but contains some truth, is that by making the bible the ultimate source of authority of faith the bible was taken out of the community and placed on a pedestal above the Church where it replaced the ecclesial authority of the pope over the Church. One of the unintended consequences of this is that we may have replaced the authority of the pope with the possibility that we are now all popes and can read and decide for ourselves what the bible actually means.

Andrew admits this caricature does not actually reflect the continuity of the Reformation with the Catholic tradition but he did write to me and say that the fact that the Reformation led to reformation ad nauseum – hence so many traditions,sects,and denominations today – does indicate that although many would assent to Luther’s view that we bow before scripture to be judged, scripture can be subjected to our own interpretation and judgement. This moves us into a debate about the relationship of biblical authority and its relationship to Christian tradition and ecclesial authority to give in ‘right interpretation’ and is no help either way to defenders of scriptural inerrancy

A question of right dogmas? For Andrew personally he does not mind if you or I hold to a doctrine of inerrancy but encourages us not to make a dogma of it. It is this which really bugs him. Inerrancy can not be the touchstone of orthodoxy for it is not enshrined in the great truths of the bible and creeds of the early church which reflect the real ‘fundamentals’ that Jesus is Lord and ‘without him nothing is made that is made:’

"He who was one with the Father from all eternity divested himself of his glory and became one of us, a human being, Creator joined in one man to creature flesh. He is the way to the Father..." (John 14:6.)

and Jesus will lead us into all truth and eternal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Andrew thinks a high view of scripture, which Catholics, Evangelicals and Orthodox hold in common is the view that the scriptures proclaim the revelation of God. Without such a high view it would not be possible to accept the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation/the Virgin Birth, the saving death and Resurrection of Christ and the World to come - all of the above he calls the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Andrew went on to say that he was a canon man: by that he means that the scriptural canon has been chosen by the Church and given that he feels it unnecessary to defend every jot and tiitle as being authentic history. In the early Church both Jerome and Origen expressed ideas on Genesis 1 & 2 that are closer to Lewis’ myth than Creationist science. [Possibly otherse such as Luther was not sure of the historicity of Jonah or Calvin that of Job].

In some ways it is a little easier to accept the ambiguities of genre in the bible, if we believe that the canon of the bible has been chosen by the church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to defend the bible for containing details of minor differences or absolutely insist on the historicity of Job or Jonah (remembering that Esther only got into the canon of scripture by the skin of her teeth).

On the other hand there is a new problem: shall we ask if the Church then is infallible and if so what is the church and who is in it? It helps a little bit to answer these questions for yourself if you know the history of our Christian tradition (more of which will be covered Deep Church lecture 5)

In some ways it is a fact of Christian discipleship that we will have doubts about this and that and never – this side of the eschaton – will we know the answers to everything. We are however part of a tradition of 2000 years of a people who have wrestled with these questions. As a community maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not is the bible inerrant but are we orthodox in the basic Christian beliefs that we hold and express in common - core beliefs that belong to all bible ‘honouring’ denominations (this is a Protestant version of the more catholic language of venerating).

Inerrancy then becomes what it should always have been:a secondary issue rather than something to support a common core of belief, which itself became a core of belief. To talk of common core beliefs is to bring us back to Deep Church in which Andew hopes to plunge us into and for those of uswho are shy of total emmersion, shall I say ‘invite you to stick your toe in’

Questions of doubt/ambiguities…

Andrew invited us to share some of the doubts, ambiguities and questions that we had and gave us a couple of examples:

1) Can an all powerful God be considered good if there is suffering in the world? Or is God good but not powerful to stop suffering?

2) Did Jesus as the incarnate son of God know that he was? If not does it mean he was not?

Questions from the group...

Q: If God knew about the fall why did he make us and more than that why did he make the universe so huge?

Andrew response was this is a Q of whether we think that God is all knowing or not. If we think that he is then he must have known and therefore that tells us something about the character of God in making matter articulate in the form of man and woman for we can answer back and so this also tells us something about us.

In may ways it is a similar Q to the one Andrew posed on suffering which examines whether we think God is all powerful or not.

Andrew gave us the view to the second question of Maximus the Confessor whose view of creation was that it reflected God’s ‘crazy love’ (manichos eros) – God created on the scale and complexity that he did as an outpouring of generosity that kicked over the traces and went beyond calculation (God is not a calculus with attitude) and economy of scale for he loves us madly without stint.

Q: If Jesus died on the cross once for all why do we still need to confess our sins?

Confession is something that the bible suggests over and over again as something helpful and powerful. One of the most powerful prayers in Andrew’s tradition is ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Andrew thinks that it keeps us down at the cross where we need to be.

It is a dangerous theology to think I am saved now it no longer matters what I do? Question is then do we still sin? If yes then maybe confession is sill relevant?

Q: Finding hard to reconcile why a good God would send people to hell to suffer?

One issue to grapple with is that if it is Christ who decides who goes to hell it is it therefore possible in his wider love/mercy that who goes to heaven might be wider than we would allow.

There is also a question of how much Dante’s Inferno we read into the bible? The early church fathers were divided on what hell was like. Some thought in philosophical terms that heaven was the fullness of being and hell would be some form of non-being. Roger Forster of Ichthus would put it more interms of hell being not sharing eternity with God

Similarly we are not totally aware of what heaven will be like either. We do know it is a place of connection and relationship with Jesus so maybe hell is the opposite of that which is a place of separation and estrangement.

[NB: If you are interested exploring the question of hell further then you may be interested in this post].

Q: Why do we have such hard boundaries in church that make it about us in here and those out there?

Andrew thinks it is hard enough for people in church to talk to each other let alone be good and talking with people of no faith. We have erected walls of enmity between denominations, which reflect that we are exclusively right rather than recognising each other as fellow travellers on the way.

In our attitude to the world, Andrew suggests that we need to have a theology of suffering like the heart of Jesus. The problems of the world bringing out our compassion. We share the deep wounds of the crucified Lord not in the sense that we share his stigmata but that we show our at-one-ment with him by following his example and command (Mat 16:24) 'take up your cross...